More MS news articles for March 2000

Work Incentives Part II: Working the System

By Debbie Dase, M.A.

With unemployment rates soaring for people with disabilities, it is vitally important to have as much information as possible about Social Security work incentives. Most people with disabilities want to work, but are afraid of losing their Medicare, their SSA cash benefits or their Medicaid eligibility. Therefore, knowledge of work incentive programs is essential for people with disabilities to make informed choices about their lives.

Trial Work Period (TWP)

As soon as you are begin receiving SSDI, you become eligible for a "Trial Work Period" (TWP). The TWP officially begins as soon as your SSDI begins, but is not activated until you get a job, earning over substantial gainful activity (SGA) of $200 per month. Every month in which you earn $200 or more counts as a TWP month. You are allowed nine TWP months.

Be careful: You can earn as much money as you like, but at the end of TWP, SSA can say that you had a successful TWP and find you no longer disabled. This will trigger your Extended Period of Eligibility and your Continuation of Medicare.

Knowledge of work incentive programs is essential for people with disabilities to make informed choices about their lives.

There is no limit to what you can earn during each TWP month. During this time period, you will still receive the full amount of your SSDI, unaffected by your earned income. For example, Molly receives $700 in SSDI benefits and $1000 a month in wages. Molly will have a total income of $1700 each month for the entire nine months.

The TWP does not have to happen all at once, but can be accumulated over a long time period. For instance, if Molly's employer has to lay off some workers, and she loses her job, her TWP would stop at six months. When Molly obtains another job earning over $200 per month, her TWP will start ticking again. Three months later, her TWP would be used up. Her benefits should then stop, unless her local SSA office is generous enough to allow her a three-month grace period, which is allowable but NOT automatic.

Unsuccessful Work Attempt

An Unsuccessful Work Attempt comes into play when a person with a disability gets a job, and then is forced to quit, or to reduce her/his work to less than SGA ($700 per month), either because of the disability itself, or because necessary disability-related supports were removed. Months spent working during an Unsuccessful Work Attempt, if less than six, do not count toward the nine-month TWP.

Let's say that Eric began working, with the assistance of a job coach provided by a local employment program. For five months, Eric earns $950 per month. Then Eric's job coach quits, and Eric cannot find another suitable job coach. Eric is unable to perform his job duties without the support of a job coach. As a result, Eric loses his job. SSA will agree that Eric had an Unsuccessful Work Attempt. Therefore, Eric still has his TWP intact because Eric's six months of work did not count. This means that Eric could, in the future, work for nine more months before losing his SSDI.

Impairment Related Work Expense (IRWE) This work incentive rule is for people with disabilities who receive SSI and/or SSDI. An Impairment Related Work Expense (IRWE) is the cost of an item or service that allows a person with a disability to work. The expense must be related to the disability, not just to the job. Car payments probably would not be considered an IRWE, but hand controls or other adaptations to the automobile would count as an IRWE.

Here is how IRWEs can help protect a disabled worker's benefits: Andrea receives an SSI payment of $512 a month, and she earns $800 a month working in a restaurant. Andrea has to buy seizure medication that costs $100 per month. She rides paratransit, which costs $50 per month, and uses attendant services costing $120 per month. The cost of Andrea's medication, transportation and attendant services -- all IRWEs -- will be deducted from Andrea's earnings.

This is how SSA would re-figure Andrea's SSI amount for those months in which she worked and had Impairment-Related Work Expenses: From her monthly wages of $800, she gets the $65 general exclusion. (Anyone can receive $65 in a month without any affect on his or her SSI.) This leaves $735. Subtract $100 for the medication, $50 for transportation, and $120 for attendant services. Deducting these IRWEs leaves $465 in constable income. Divide this figure by two to determine the amount that will be withheld from the SSI payment-in this case, $232.50. Deducting the amount from the maximum SSI payment of $512 leaves a total payment of $279.50. This is how much Andrea will receive from SSI, as long as she's earning $800, and has IRWEs totaling $270.

IRWEs have a similar effect on SSDI. Say Carlos, an SSDI recipient, was earning $750 per month as a cashier. If he has to spend $125 a month on prescription medication for his mental illness, that amount would be deducted from his wages. Subtracting $125 from his earnings of $750 would result in countable earnings of $625, which is below the SGA rate of $700. Thus, Carlos is not considered to be substantially gainfully employed, and he does not use up any of his Trial Work Period, and does not risk losing his SSDI.

Depending on your disability, many different items and services can be deducted as IRWEs: medications, adapted computer hardware/software, personal care services, transportation/mileage expenses (if disability-related), wheelchairs, respirators, oxygen, prostheses, home modifications, medical services, and others.

Problems can arise with SSA staff when a disabled worker attempts to claim IRWEs. SSA staff are permitted to make decisions on an individual's IRWEs. This leads to people with disabilities being short-changed by SSA. It is very important to keep all receipts for items and services that you purchase. Before going to SSA with your IRWEs, arrange all of your receipts by month. Tape or staple your receipts to a sheet of paper, in order by date. Keep copies of everything. SSA requires original documents.

SSA staffers have been known to lose people's important papers. If you bring original receipts or documents to a meeting with SSA, have SSA make copies, and return the originals to you before you leave the meeting. Take notes during your meeting with the SSA staff. If your SSA staff person feels that one of your IRWE items or services is not deductible, make him/her show you their rule that excludes your IRWE. Take advantage of this work incentive!

Remember: IRWEs are only deductible if YOU pay for them. IRWE cannot reduce wages to stop the TWP.

Blind Work Expenses (BWE)

Social Security has different rules for people who are blind. People who are blind can use both IRWEs and Blind Work Expenses (BWEs). BWEs are a lot like IRWEs, except they do not necessarily have to be related to the disability. BWEs include driver services; Social Security taxes; federal, state and local income taxes; guide dog expenses; reader services; Braille equipment; professional association fees; union dues; and electronic visual aids.

Also, the SGA level is higher for those who have visual impairments. The SGA level for people who have this disability is $1110. Please don't ask me why this is true when, in reality, all types of disabilities can limit employment and incur extra costs. Blindness is not inherently more disabling nor more expensive than, say, quadriplegia or schizophrenia. The most explanation for the differential relates to the historical strength of the lobbying organizations made up of people who are blind.

Remember: Impairment Related Work Expenses and Blind Work Expenses are deductions for items or services which you need in order to work, and which you yourself have paid for. The service or item is necessary because you have a disability (except in the case of BWEs). You can only deduct expenses that SSA deems "reasonable."

If you have questions or comments about this article or SSA and employment, please post your responses on Spinewire's Advocacy Forum.

Next article: Extended Period of Eligibility (EPE), Continuation of Medicare, and 1619(a) and (b).

(This story was posted on 19 Mar 2000)